This news analysis was published at InSight Crime.
A former El Salvador mayor has become the country’s first mayor to be convicted of illicit association with gangs, a small step toward addressing the widespread problem of gang infiltration of local politics, which could affect upcoming elections.
José Elías Hernández, the former mayor of El Salvador’s Apopa municipality on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador, was convicted February 1 of illicit association with the Barrio 18 gang and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
According to Judge Godofredo Salazar, sufficient evidence was provided by the Attorney General’s Office to prove that Hernández provided various benefits to local factions of the Barrio 18, including money transfers and access to vehicles and gasoline, during both of his terms in office from 2012 to 2015 and through his reelection in 2015.
A recent InSight Crime investigation delved into the details of Hernández’s ties to the gangs, illustrating the way in which Hernández’s connections benefited both him and the gangs.
Hernández was originally charged with associating with a terrorist organization, but the judge changed the charge to illicit association, citing the fact that the illegal activities engaged in by the mayor and members of the gang did not cause “social alarm,” as they were committed clandestinely.
Hernández was found not guilty on the additional charge of homicide due to a lack of solid evidence, the convicting judge said.
Hernández will likely appeal the decision.
Several other former municipal officials are also currently under investigation for ties to gangs. Miguel Ángel Jaime, the former mayor of Usulután, was arrested in June 2017, on charges of financing multiple cliques of the Barrio 18’s rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). José Manuel Turcios, the former mayor of Jucuapa, was also arrested on similar charges in September 2017. In early January 2018, Héctor Gómez Escobar, an alleged gang member on El Salvador’s list of 100 most wanted criminals, was arrested after being selected to run for office in upcoming municipal elections.
Ahead of the legislative and municipal elections scheduled for early March 2018, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has recently ordered the arrests of more than 300 individuals linked to gangs and accused of interfering in political campaigns. Meléndez has also called on the country’s political parties to be careful in their selection of candidates and to avoid interference from criminal elements.
“The political parties, and candidates running for positions as officials, governors or congress members, need to be very measured, very cautious and in control over who they are working with and forming alliances with,” Meléndez said, adding that “people linked to crime or gangs” should not “have any influence over the work of political parties.”
InSight Crime Analysis
El Salvador’s first ever conviction of a mayor for ties to gangs shows that the country’s judicial system has the capacity to take down corrupted officials, but as this year’s municipal elections approach, the widespread influence of gangs in politics continues to pose significant challenges.
As InSight Crime documented in a recent investigative series, mayors in Central America’s northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras often serve as a nexus of crime and political power. The relationships built between politicians and gangs are widespread, as they are mutually beneficial: allowing gangs to expand or maintain influence over territories, while politicians gain or maintain local political control.
This dynamic is evident in El Salvador, not just at the local level but at the national level. For example, InSight Crime obtained several videos in 2016 that showed El Salvador’s two main political parties, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), agreed to channel government-funded projects to gang members in exchange for support during the country’s 2014 presidential elections.
As the country’s March elections approach, Police Chief Howard Cotto has warned that gangs are again infiltrating local politics. Actions taken by Attorney General Meléndez to arrest candidates and officials suspected of ties to criminal groups, as well as the recent conviction of Hernández, indicate that the judicial system is still working to dismantle these corrupt networks. However, sustained efforts will be required to address the structural problems that open the door for the widespread and deeply ingrained influence of gangs to perpetuate in El Salvador’s politics.